THE BAILEY

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. . . on Front Street in Wilmington, North Carolina, across from my grandfather’s men’s clothing store.  I saw movies here in my youth — now it’s a parking lot.

My grandfather’s men’s clothing store is now a brew pub, though with much of its old interior still intact.

LUMINA

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Lumina, a dance hall by the sea, was still around when I was growing up.  It had become a roller rink.  In my mom’s youth it had hosted big name dance bands.  Folks from Wilmington, about 10 miles inland, would ride out to Wrightsville Beach for the dances on special trolley cars, then ride the trolleys back after the dances were over.

I vaguely remember seeing “movies over the waves” there — which dated back to the 1920s, the era of the postcard above — but I may just be recalling my mom’s tales of same.

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THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES

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This movie, by Sergei Parajanov, is an avalanche of beautiful and astonishing images.  What they signify individually or add up to collectively is not so clear, but maybe not important, either.

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They are so wonderfully and imaginatively composed and lit that they have the authority of brilliant paintings — but they also integrate elegant, stylized movement, which imbues them with the authority of brilliant ballets.

The film seems to point the way towards, and sometimes realize, a radically new vision of cinematic practice.  Many avant-garde films have been purely imagistic, conceptually speaking, but few have consistently created images as finished and powerful as those in this film.  You forget the concept and get lost in the individual shots.

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The images are hard to analyze.  They sometimes have the static gravity of religious icons, sometimes the spooky eccentricity of de Chirico’s dreamscapes, sometimes the simple grandeur of Giotto’s frescos.  They are unclassifiable but oddly familiar within the traditions of Western art.

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The film claims to be the biography of a poet told in the terms of the poet’s imagination, the poet’s imagery.  This is not a persuasive claim.  No poet sees or experiences his or her whole life in poetic terms, no one can sum up the life of a poet in purely poetic terms.  By rights the movie ought to be either a poetic biography or a biographical poem, but it is neither.  It’s really just an excuse to make beautiful and astonishing images.

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[Photo © Paul Kolnik]

George Balanchine claimed that he never made abstract, non-narrative ballets.  He said, “A boy meets a girl, he loses the girl, he gets the girl back.  How much story do you want?”  The Color Of Pomegranates has even less story than that — it’s just a progression from childhood to maturity to death.  But how much story do you want?

(Curiously, both Balanchine and Parajanov were born in Tbilisi, Georgia, though of different ethnic backgrounds.)

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The miracle of the film is that it rivets your attention in the absence of a driving narrative — just by virtue of its pictorial inventiveness and cinematic virtuosity.  It may not add up to much but pure pleasure — but when have you ever had your fill of that?

[Ironically, this visual tour de force, important to so many important directors of the 20th Century, is only available in a mediocre DVD transfer of a mediocre print — almost not worth watching in that form.]

ESSENTIAL

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This movie is one of cinema’s most dazzling exercises in style — in art direction, in lighting, in cinematography, in choreographing movement for and by the camera, in creating seductive cinematic spaces.

Paradoxically all this aesthetic beauty serves a grim and depressing story.  The film says at once that the world is a shabby, brutal place and also a place of endless sensual enchantment.  It’s hard to know if this was an exercise in irony on Bertolucci’s part or a symptom of schizophrenia, exposing the divided heart of a man torn between rigorous political commitment and unmediated artistic self-indulgence.

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Not that it matters when you’re watching the film — its contradictions are dissolved in its cinematic virtuosity and its irresistible erotic undertows, because these are the things that ultimately define the film, that ultimately defined Bertolucci at the time he made it, in spite of himself or not.

I hesitate to call it a great movie but it has some of the greatest passages in any movie ever made — passages which by themselves justify and exalt the medium beyond judgement or praise.

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TWO MUSICALS

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In 10th grade I entered a high school public speaking contest.  I took it upon myself to compare and contrast two recent movie musicals — The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg and The Sound Of Music.

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I was at the time a big fan of the French New Wave and almost completely immune to the genius of classic Hollywood musicals.  Naturally I proved by unassailable logic that The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg was a masterpiece while The Sound Of Music was a bit of commercial fluff.

I just watched the two films again on Blu-ray.  My thoughts about them . . . have evolved.

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This may sound ridiculously obvious but when considering a musical it’s really important to consider its music.  The music Richard Rodgers wrote for The Sound Of Music is, quite simply, beyond praise, beyond critical appraisal.  Michel Legrand’s music for The Umbrellas Of Cherborg is also very fine, but not in the same league as Rodgers’s.  Both serve the artistic ambitions of their respective movies with equal felicity and skill, but Rodgers’s score has a timeless brilliance that transcends its emotional or dramatic functions.  He wrote melodies that have a life of their own, that are immortal.

Only one of Legrand’s melodies has something of that quality:

Still, there are half a dozen songs in the Sound Of Music in the same class, and no others in The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg.  To be fair, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is not a musical structured around set-piece numbers.  It’s all sung but most of it is jazzy recitative evoking normal spoken dialogue.  What this means in practice, though, its that the great set-piece melody at the heart of the movie has to carry the whole emotional weight of the film, musically speaking.

There are no memorable melodies that provide contrast, that embody the various ancillary moods of the film — it’s either vernacular recitative or the grand lyrical passion of this one melody . . . ultimately a tenuous structure.

Demy’s lyrics for the recitative and for Legrand’s great central tune are purely functional dramatically.  Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for the Rodgers tunes are exercises in virtuoso wordsmithing — bordering on the treacly in passages, perhaps, but mostly dazzling in their simplicity and ingenuity, a combination of qualities that only a poet of genius can pull off.

Hammerstein died soon after the premiere of the Broadway play.  The last lyric he completed before he died was the one for this song:

What a way to go out, on an accomplishment of pure perfection.

In general, looking at the two movies today, I find that I’m better able to appreciate the uses of virtuosity, the emotional effectiveness of virtuosity, and the dramatic satisfactions of the traditional book-musical structure.  By the same token, Robert Wise’s impeccable cinematic technique, rooted in Hollywood studio practice, seems as potent as Demy’s more personal and inventive style.

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I still get choked up, as I did as a teenager, at the ending of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, but I get choked up more often throughout The Sound Of Music, at the simple sweetness conveyed by virtuoso technicians of the musical form, a sweetness conjured up without insistent aesthetic pretension.

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As a teenager I used to think it was more important to be cool than to be kind — cool by my own quirky standards, perhaps, not by anyone else’s, but still . . . cool.  Now I know that kindness is the greatest of all virtues, that without kindness, life has no meaning whatsoever, however cool you are or think you are.

I still think that The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is a kind of masterpiece, but I now think that The Sound Of Music is a masterpiece, too, and in some ways a greater one.  The Umbrellas Of Cherboug remains cooler than The Sound Of Music but it’s not a whit more powerful as a expression of life-changing human kindness.

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One thing I didn’t appreciate as a teenager is the key thing the two films have in common — radiant and stupendous performances by their female leads, performances that don’t just redeem the films’ faults but obliterate them.

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However saccharine The Sound Of Music is tempted to get, Julie Andrews’s English country-lass sexuality and music-hall good nature ground the film back in the real world.  However arty and artificial The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is tempted to get, Catherine Deneuve’s utter commitment to her role grounds the film back in authentic and persuasive emotion.  Performances like those have a kind of music all their own.

[Note — when I say I get choked up by the ending of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg what I mean is, not to put too fine a point on it, that I cry like a baby.  By contrast, the idea that The Sound Of Music would also make me cry like a baby one day would have astonished my 16 year-old self.  But I was so much older then — I’m younger than that now.]

ESSENTIAL

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This is one of the greatest of all Hollywood musicals and one of the greatest of all Hollywood movies.  It represents a confluence of virtuosity in a number of different disciplines, principally songwriting, screenwriting, cinematography and directing.

It is not perfect by any means.  The choreography is often merely serviceable, some of the numbers are indifferently staged, some of the acting and singing is acceptable at best.  The brilliance of the other contributions, however, far outweighs the film’s flaws.

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Forget your prejudices, if you have them, against musicals, against Rodgers and Hammerstein, against Julie Andrews, and surrender to their collective genius.  Forget your prejudices, if you have them, against simplicity and implausible redemption, and surrender, at least for a few hours, to hearts that are lighter and brighter than yours is.

The Blu-ray of The Sound Of Music belongs in every civilized home.

LA BAIE DES ANGES

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When I first moved to Las Vegas I lived for a few weeks in one of the cheap rooms over the gaming floor of the El Cortez downtown.  I loved it — never wanted to leave.  I played a lot of roulette there — the stakes were so low that you could spin out $20 over a whole evening, getting free drinks in the bargain.

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It was great for people watching, and the people were often sad, many really thinking they were going to win serious money spreading their 25-cent chips over the board, some keeping meticulous records of the numbers that came up, hoping to detect patterns.

Desperate guys who’d busted out would follow me to the men’s room and ask to borrow ten bucks to stay in the game.  A black guy who kept losing, like almost everybody else, told me he thought the odds were stacked against black players in Las Vegas — that blacks simply weren’t allowed to win.

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Jacques Demy’s La Baie des Anges captures the mood of desperate, addicted roulette players better than any story I know — the self-deception, the occasional exhilaration, the creeping sense of doom, the feeling of becoming unmoored in time.  The film is almost clinical in its depiction of the phenomenon.

One dreams of meeting a stunning dame like Jeanne Moreau at a roulette table, but only if she brings you luck.  If not, she’s just another distraction, just another ironic signpost on the road to disaster.  It’s all very depressing.

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Demy being Demy, of course, there is always redemption of one sort or another waiting in the wings — a moment of grace that may not be plausible or expected according to the cynical standards of this world.  In the case of La Baie des Anges it’s like the moments of grace we find at the climax of many John Ford films — The Informer or Stagecoach or The Searchers.  Grace doesn’t operate by the cynical standards of this world — so Ford and Demy simply say, “Fuck ‘em” . . . and just like that those standards are fucked, and you’re in tears.

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MAN OF THE WEST

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Kino Lorber has just released a terrific Blu-ray of Anthony Mann’s terrific Man Of the West, starring Gary Cooper.

Mann started out making low-budget films noirs in the 1940s then became a master filmmaker in the Western genre with the five Westerns he made with Jimmy Stewart in the 1950s.  After he and Stewart had a falling out and parted ways, Mann made a few more Westerns with other stars, including Man Of the West.

Like all of Mann’s Westerns it has a noirish edge to it.  Cooper is a reformed outlaw drawn by chance back into the company of his former gang, led by the psychotic Dock Tobin, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Lee J. Cobb.

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Forced to face up to the crud he used to be and struggling to escape the clutches of the gang once again, he endures a dark night of the soul, of humiliation and shame, before performing the heroic deeds that will set things right again.

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Mann had a terrific eye for composition, for landscapes and for movement within them.  When he started working in CinemaScope, as here, he began to develop the epic style he would one day bring to late-career films like El Cid, one of the greatest of all Hollywood epics, and The Fall Of the Roman Empire, less great but still breathtaking in parts.

The Blu-ray format does justice to Mann’s visual genius and makes this new Kino Lorber edition a must-have for fans of the director’s work and of Westerns.